What is Anxiety?

See also: Avoiding and Managing Stress

We all get anxious from time-to-time, this is normal and even beneficial to us.

Anxiety is actually useful when we are placed in a worrying situation as it encourages us to perform at our best. In evolutionary terms, it is part of our “fight or flight” response where hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol surge through our bodies in response to a threat and get us ready to take appropriate action.

The feelings of worry, nervousness and restlessness that characterise anxiety are familiar to us all.

However, anxiety becomes a problem when people find that they are anxious a lot of the time, especially if they become anxious about everyday things that pose no particular threat.

Protracted anxiety is very unpleasant and can lead to further health problems. This page explains why people may develop long-term anxiety, the most common types of anxiety and what can be done to treat anxiety.

Why do People Develop Continued Anxiety?

People are generally anxious for a number of reasons rather than just one.

These include:

  • Stressful Life Events

    Exams, overwork, housing issues, bereavement, relationship breakdowns etc. can all cause anxiety. Unfortunately, the list of stressful life events is a long one. See our page What is Stress? for more details.

  • Personality

    Some people are natural worriers and find it hard to stand back from a situation. A tendency to see the world as a scary place naturally makes you anxious.

  • Past Events

    A difficult childhood or a trauma deplete resilience and make people very vulnerable to anxiety, especially if there is a risk of a traumatic situation being repeated.

  • Lifestyle

    Eating too much sugar or taking in too much caffeine can make you anxious, as can taking illegal drugs and a lack of exercise.

  • Other Health Problems

    People with chronic pain are very prone to anxiety about whether they can manage things or when the pain might reoccur. Medications such as some steroids and anti-malarial drugs have been linked to anxiety, and there is considerable overlap between anxiety and depression.

Protracted anxiety is often referred to as generalised anxiety disorder or GAD.

Anxiety and Depression

The awful greyness of depression and the horrible 'hot red' feeling of anxiety are very different experiences but it is common for sufferers of one condition to also develop the other.

The reason for this is down to brain chemistry, although no one is completely sure of how this works. Anxiety and depression can make each other worse: the good news is that they can be treated in the same way, as explained below and on our What is Depression? page.

Panic Attacks

Panic attacks can be hard to explain to anyone who has not experienced one themselves.

A sufferer will experience a sudden crippling bout of anxiety, with a racing heart, sweating, shaking and shortness of breath. Sometimes there will be heart palpitations or numbness in the limbs and a genuine feeling that something really awful is wrong and they are about to die. Panic attacks are a completely horrible experience.

People with panic attacks often do not realise what the trouble is and may make many visits to the doctor convinced that they have a heart or thyroid problem as the initial symptoms may be similar. When panic attacks are diagnosed, some sufferers feel embarrassed, as if they should 'just pull themselves together’. This is unfair: no one would choose to have panic attacks or put one on for the fun of it. They require proper treatment.

Specific Conditions Related to Anxiety

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a response to a specific event such as a natural disaster or being the victim of a violent crime.

This leads to temporary anxiety, nightmares and flashbacks in many people, but PTSD sufferers find it hard to move on even when time has passed and develop depression and/or anxiety.

Social Anxiety Disorder

Sufferers of this, also known as social phobia, find any kind of socialising very difficult and experience extreme anxiety when forced to interact with others.

They are often aware that their response is irrational but are powerless to alter it and thus end up very isolated, experiencing few relationships.

Panic Disorder

Some people have panic attacks without any specific trigger and for no apparent reason, and this is known as panic disorder.

Panic disorder sufferers may avoid places where previous attacks have occurred, just in case another one develops, and thus may develop agoraphobia, where they feel safe only in their preferred territory and may avoid leaving their home altogether.

Treatments for Anxiety

Anxiety in any form is a highly treatable condition.

Sufferers need not be embarrassed and should seek treatment as soon as possible as there is every chance they can easily return to normal.

The two main treatments that might be prescribed by a doctor are talking therapies, such as counselling, and medication such as antidepressants.

These are also the best treatments for depression and are discussed further on our page Treatments for Depression page.

Anxiety used to be treated by the use of tranquillisers such as Valium (diazepam). These are, however, highly addictive and are now only offered in the very short term. If anxiety is very severe, a small dose of anti-psychotic drugs might be helpful.

Mild to moderate anxiety may be best dealt with by the patient themselves. Taking some exercise releases chemicals called endorphins that have a positive effect on the brain.

Art therapy, getting out into the countryside, and trying to slow down and be more 'mindful' – aware of the joy of the present moment – can all be helpful. Our page, Keeping Your Mind Healthy contains some helpful suggestions.

There are also many peer support groups in the community and online. Talking to other people who are going through the same thing makes anyone feel much less alone, and talking to those who have been through it and are now better may be wonderfully encouraging.

Any mental health condition can make the sufferer feel as if they have had it forever and will be stuck with it forever: this is, happily, simply not true.

The Skills You Need Guide to Stress and Stress Management

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide to Stress and Stress Management

Understand and Manage Stress in Your Life

Learn more about the nature of stress and how you can effectively cope with stress at work, at home and in life generally. The Skills You Need Guide to Stress and Stress Management eBook covers all you need to know to help you through those stressful times and become more resilient.